Actor Amin El Gamal On Creating Complex Stories and Returning to His Pre-Hollywood Actor Self — FannBoy Friday

"To me it was always like, being Muslim is whatever you want it to be. If that's your background and it's no longer relevant to you or doesn't work for you, that's fine. Or if you're very queer and also very traditionally religious, of course that's fine. Or anything in between."

Actor Amin El Gamal On Creating Complex Stories and Returning to His Pre-Hollywood Actor Self — FannBoy Friday

FannBoy Friday is a weekly column from Shahjehan Khan that highlights American Muslim creatives.

Amin El Gamal was born during an earthquake in Palo Alto, Calif. His parents are both Egyptian immigrants — his mother came to the U.S. with her family as a child to escape political persecution and his father immigrated for graduate school. He studied English and drama at Stanford University before progressing to the USC School of Dramatic Arts, where he graduated with an MFA in acting.

Shortly thereafter, Amin landed roles on “The Newsroom” (2012), “Shameless” (2011), and “The Librarians” (2014). In 2017, he played sinister fan favorite Cyclops on the “Prison Break” (2005) revival, which established him as the first openly queer Muslim actor to play a leading role on a TV show. With a recurring role on “Good Trouble” (2019) and notable appearances in the films “Namour” (2016), “Message from the King” (2016), “First Love” (2019), Spring Bloom and “Breaking Fast” (2020), Amin is well on his way to establishing himself as one of Hollywood's most striking and versatile performers (adapted from IMDB). 

The two of us connected during the outreach period for Rifelion’s Ramadan Shorts where I was taking one-on-one calls with Muslim creatives across the country, and I thought Amin would be the perfect guest. It turns out that we could have met up in Martha’s Vineyard during production for Rifelion’s “Witness” podcast this past July, as Amin was on the island for a play, but we both forgot until it was too late!

(Amin’s interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Shahjehan: What are you most excited about for 2023?

Amin: I'm working on a show now [called “We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War”] with Lebanese American writer Mona Mansur — She just had a show at The Public called “The Vagrant Trilogy” that was this epic about Palestine that was groundbreaking. I am [currently] on Martha's Vineyard [“for We Swim, We Talk, We Go To War”] and we have not opened yet because of an electrical problem; Because it's an island, they're having trouble finding the appropriate part and the appropriate person to fix it. So yeah, welcome to the life of an actor who does theater. … 

I would say there's two things I'm looking forward to. This year has been sort of a quantum leap for my producing endeavors. I'm generally an actor and I'm still an actor, but I shot my first film … called “Unmasking” a month ago with a really great non-binary autistic director named Aubrey Bernier-Clarke.

It's about gender and neurodivergence and a very, very sweet take on … exploring the intersection of those two things, so I'm very excited about that. And then I'm developing a feature film with my friend Randa Jarrar. … It's very queer and very Muslim and very subversive, kind of like if John Waters was a queer Muslim, Arab femme, … and I love it. We're applying for labs and things and developing it now.

And I'm mostly looking forward  — I'll say this diplomatically — to a really good SAG-AFTRA deal, negotiated with, you know, wages that are livable and residuals from streaming and some curbing of self tape mayhem.

Shahjehan: When would you say you first felt empowered to be a creator, and then when would you say you felt similarly empowered to be you or your full self, whatever that means to you?

Amin: It's interesting because when I was younger — like very young, a toddler — I already had the instinct to make things. I was always in a corner. I felt I was very shy and introverted and sort of bullied a lot, so I spent a lot of time by myself just creating different worlds and observing other people, which is a very useful tool for an artist. But that wasn't really the aim. I just was sort of on the outside, so I was always kind of observing. … I had [the instinct to create] at a very young age and I was very bold with it. [For example] I built a little stage and did a puppet show for my kindergarten class, kind of all on my own. I don't know why. It … let me entertain the class and the teacher allowed me to do it and I remember that and it was this big thing with the principal. She's like, “You have to see this kid. He's playing all these characters.” And I would enlist my brothers and do little productions in our garage when I was like four, five, six. 

Becoming an adult, going through acting training and Hollywood really narrowed me in a weird way, narrowed my scope, and I really want to go back to that very young person before all the … trauma and being told you can't do this, or confronting racism or having to audition for terrorists kind of made me more of a wait-around-for-auditions kind of actor, you know? So many artists just want to go back to our true essence of self before we were told “no, you can't do that. Don't try” or “you're too weird-looking to be an actor” or “your only value is that you speak Arabic,” or whatever it is. Weird, toxic stuff. I’m trying to reclaim that, the energy of creating and right now that's through producing.

I'm interested in writing, but I haven't really dipped my toes too much into that. Producing has been really fun and it's given me a lot of the agency I missed when I was acting and feeling like my voice wasn't always heard or respected. 

When did I feel like I could be my full self? Identity-wise, I'm queer and I'm Muslim and I'm a North African Egyptian Arab. I think when I was younger, I hid. I didn't understand my sexuality. It was also the late ‘80s, ‘90s. It just was a different time and I was very closed off from people and I was ashamed of being Muslim and I was ashamed of not being blonde. I hated myself for a lot of those things for a while. I think it wasn't until college that I was able to sort of explore who I was in terms of gender and sexuality, and then I think a little bit later that I reclaimed my Muslimness and my culture. I really felt robbed of that and felt angry that there's often this binary for queer Muslims where they're like “I'm either queer or a Muslim.” A lot of people have bridged that binary but I think we often go through this thing where we're like, “Oh, the religion or the culture says that I can't exist or that I'm not good, so I'm gonna reject that.” … But then you're robbed of your culture, your spirituality, your connection to things. And so it's been really important to me. 

I started a queer Muslim [support] group in L.A. … in 2012 or 13, and helped run it for like five or six years. To me it was always like, being Muslim is whatever you want it to be. If that's your background and it's no longer relevant to you or doesn't work for you, that's fine. Or if you're very queer and also very traditionally religious, of course that's fine. Or anything in between… No one has the right to say you're Muslim or you're not Muslim. That is your personal relationship with your spirituality. So that was very important to me. It felt important to reclaim that space. I think for American Muslims who are not queer, it's important … politically and also culturally to show up as who you are and not hide regardless of how you practice. …

When I have had more attention in the past, like [when I was on] on different TV shows and stuff, people advised me to hide my background or to hide my sexuality. And it just was not something that was tenable or palatable for me. I wasn't gonna change my name, I wasn't gonna pretend I wasn't Muslim. I wasn't gonna not speak up about Palestine. I wasn't going to go in the closet. I don't think Hollywood is there yet. We like to think it is, but it's not really, so we still have to keep pushing and I think we still have to be proud of who we are and own our choices and ultimately make our own work that's complex and real and human, and not in these narrow narratives.

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Shahjehan: What are your favorite sorts of roles to play? Is there a particular one you've had in the past that challenged you or made you a stronger actor?

Amin: Sort of a cop-out answer, but I feel likeI learned something on every role. The role I'm playing now [is in] a meta play and it's very strange. Like it's hard to really explain, but there’s a character, sort of a stand-in for the playwrights, a character who's a stand-in for her nephew, basically, and that's my character. The [actual] playwright [Mona Mansour] is half Lebanese and half white. And her nephew is fourth-generation Lebanese, and he is mostly white. He's also in the army, grew up in San Diego. He's more conservative. And it's a dialogue between those two; how can two people who are so different and have such different worldviews connect. 

So that character is really different from me and it’s been a challenge. But I also think it's been very liberating. Cause I think a lot of times when you're an actor who's openly queer, people pigeonhole you. And even those straight people get to play queer characters all the time. Often queer actors, once you know they're gay, they're like “I can't possibly believe you're straight,” which is just so crazy. So it's been fun to play a role where I'm interrogating both race and whiteness. … I'm not white at all, but it's interesting; our whole play is POC and it's basically a play about examining whiteness in a certain way. Also [it examines] what are the different palettes of gender, so sometimes I'm just myself, the actor and then other times I'm slipping into this character in that kind of subtle way. … It’s been very fun and empowering.

There was a queer Muslim rom-com that I was in a couple years ago called “Breaking Fast,” written and directed by Mike Mosallam. And initially I was like, “This is so easy.” I was the best friend, kind of comic relief. And I was like, “This is so a piece of cake, I can do this in my sleep.” And then I was like, “Oh no, this character has a lot of things that are similar to me, but honestly, in every other way, he's very different. He's very loud and outspoken. He drives every scene he's in, he talks very fast.” And… I'm an actor who always starts with myself and I'm pretty chill, and will kind of sneak into the character. The director wanted it to be very loud, brassy and theatrical on camera. And that was really scary for me because it felt too big, but ultimately when I saw the film, I was really proud of it. And I think just the technical [side], like landing jokes, talking really fast, being loud, kind of driving the scene, those were really challenging. But I think it all really worked, and the character is very beloved, and very funny and very sweet. I think what's cool about that character, too, is he has depth. Me going through and doing the jokes kind of earned me a lot of real, more dramatic moments later in the film, which was cool. So that was really, really hard. And I also had a lot of weird self-hatred that crept up being like “Oh, this is me playing a character,” and you know, I had to deal with my own stuff so that was challenging, but ultimately I'm really proud of it.

Shahjehan: I was thinking about a particular older quote of yours from The Advocate

“I don't think I found the role that's going to be one of my defining roles yet. I think I'm still looking for that. And it is a difficult task. … To be completely frank, I think I'm going to have to start writing them. I'm not sure that they're just going to appear.’"

Can you tell me a little more about the transition from actor to actor/producer, as well as where you think this whole representation conversation is at now?

Amin: Everyone's on their own journey. I think I've been a bit blocked as a writer. I think there's a writer in there somewhere, but I've been doing labs and workshops and haven't really gotten there yet. But I do believe that until Muslim, POC, queer, etc. folks [become] people with agency, and have creative license to create work, we're always gonna be siloed in these narratives where people want to feel good about themselves or, you know, tick a box off, or it's gonna be sort of tokenized or orientalist or well-meaning, but it's [actually] about clearing the creators own guilt as opposed to creating a three dimensional character, you know? It's exciting to see “Ramy” and “Mo” and lots of other shows, but that's when someone took a chance on … the creator and let them do what they wanted to do, and I think that's the only way. I personally am not satisfied being an actor for hire. I have too many ideas. I will do the job, but I'll also be like “Oh wait, what about this? This is not your place to do that”. 

I had a very troubling experience on a show I was on for a few years where my scene wasn't really working and I was like “Oh, what about this?” Like, you know, it's my job to make it work. And [the guest director] just didn't speak. It was very strange. I kept being like, “Wait what about…,” and I was just completely disrespected and I was like, “what's happening?” I had been working really hard so I could be on a show for a season or two. And this is such a big deal for me, and even now people aren't listening to me on how to fix my own scene? It was really tough. And that was one of the first seeds of like, “Oh, I need to have more say.” I think even well-meaning projects end up being in this sort of colonial gaze. And I want to break free from that. I want stories that are kind of unexpected, that show the complexities of what it means to be who we are. I'm not interested in  a sainted propaganda portrayal of Muslims either. We need more people behind the camera [with] power, creating.

Shahjehan: Who are some of your Muslim or Muslim-ish, American Muslim inspirations?

Amin: Fawzia Mirza, Randa Jarrar, Mike Mosallam, Mohammad Tayyeb

I'll also do a shoutout to my baby cousin Yessmeen Moharram who's a queer Muslim in New York and is a music video producer and art creator.

Amin El Gamal most recently appeared as He in Mona Mansour’s “We Swim, We Talk, We Go To War” at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. You can find him on Instagram @feistypharaoh. Listen to our full conversation below or wherever you get your podcasts.

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